Director Ted Kotcheff Talks Wake in Fright, fully-restored and on Blu-ray now!
Alongside Mad Max and Walkabout, Wake in Fright is widely acknowledged as one of the seminal films in the development of modern Australian cinema. Directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Donald Pleasence, this thriller tells the nightmarish story of a schoolteacher's (Gary Bond) descent into personal demoralization at the hands of drunken, deranged derelicts while stranded in a small town in outback Australia. Believed to be lost for decades and virtually unseen in America until now, Wake in Fright returns fully-restored in stunning HD in what the New York Observer says "may be the greatest Australian film ever made."
Wake in Fright is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. To celebrate this home release, we caught up with director Ted Kotcheff to chat about the film's revival and its near destruction. Ted is a luminary in the field of action cinema, with classics like First Blood, Uncommon Valor, and North Dallas Forty to his name. He's also no stranger to comedy, responsible for one of the greatest cult films of the 80s, Weekend at Bernie's. And his TV career is just as amazing, having spent twelve years as the executive producer behind the long running critical and audience hit drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
How does Ted feel about his long lost masterpiece being saved from oblivion? Here is our conversation.
Wake in Fright is being touted as an important Australian film, but you're Canadian. Take me through how a young Canadian boy winds up making one of the three seminial films in the Australian film renaissance...
Ted Kotcheff: Ha. It is very interesting. What happened was, I was born in Toronto. I started working in live television at 21. I became one of the youngest live directors at age 24. And I directed at the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, in Toronto. I was doing live television dramas for two years. Then I said I wanted to become a film director. Where should I go? I decided that, to go to America, I had to get a work permit, and all sorts of things. So I decided to go to England, where I didn't need a work permit. I could work in the theater as well. I went to London, and I worked in television and theater. I did my early films there. I did three British films. I did Life at the Top, with Laurence Harvey and Jean Simmons. Then I did a film about the racial situation in London, which was entered in the Venice Film Festival. And then I was approached in 1959 by an American Company called Group W Films. They had an office in London. They had a partnership deal with a company in Australia called NLT. They wanted to do a film of this book. I liked the book very much, and that's how I came to do Wake in Fright.
How do you feel about Wake in Fright returning to cinemas? Did it surprise you to see the film come back from the dead?
Ted Kotcheff: First of all, I must be one of the luckiest directors in the world. That's what I think. Here is a film I made forty years ago, which, for a variety of reasons, didn't work anywhere. It certainly didn't work in its home country, which is a curse. If a film doesn't work in Australia, there is not a worldwide interest in it, if you know what I mean. The film was released in Australia in 1971, and despite a strong critical response, the popular reaction was lukewarm. Some people, I think, were a bit affronted by our depiction of the Aussie male. Jack Thompson, one of the wonderful actors in the film, told me that at one cinema, a man rose up from his chair, pointed at the screen, and said, "This is not us!" Then another voice came from another part of the theater and said, "Sit down you idiot! It is us!" (Laughs) Anyway, it didn't work in Australia. It went to the Cannes Film Festival that year, in 1971, and as a young director, I was of course thrilled that my film was playing at the Cannes Film Festival. I was being honored as a director, for my artistic success with the film. The French loved it. A man under existential stress, you know? Etcetera. It played in Paris for nine months. France was the only place that it succeeded. In America, under the title Outback, it got superb reviews from the likes of Pauline Kaill, and a bunch of others. Rex Reed chose it as one of the ten best films of 1971. And recently, Rex Reed reviewed it again, and gave it an unbelievable review. But United Artists, who distributed the film in America, didn't believe in the film at all. They said to me, "No one is going to come and see this film in America." So they opened it without any publicity. In a small cinema in New York at night, during a heavy blizzard. So, as you can imagine, nobody came. And United Artists said, "See, we told you nobody would come." Studios are very good, as you know, at fulfilling self-fulfilling prophecies. The movie was shown nowhere else in the United States. That was that. Group W films, who had financed the film with another partner, went into bankruptcy. The film was swallowed up by creditors. So, as time passed, there were no more prints, and no one was able to see it again. So, as you know...You know the story about the negative being lost, don't you?
Yes. I've read the history behind the film...
Ted Kotcheff: Do you want me to repeat it?
Yes, please. I'm sure some of the people reading this interview don't know what happened. And I'd love to hear the story in person...
Ted Kotcheff: Very well. What happened was, some twenty-five years later, in 1996, one of the Australian producers began making inquires. He wanted to know what happened to the film. The canisters containing the original negative could not be found. The film had seemingly disappeared. Then the editor on the film, Anthony Buckley, took up the challenge. He loved Wake in Fright, so he spent the next 13 years, from 1995 to 2008, trying to track down the negative. Between jobs, he traveled from Australia, to London, to Dublin. He went to New York, all at his own expense. He was incredibly persistent. Five years ago, he finally found the film in a warehouse in Pittsburg, of all place. There were over two hundred cans of negatives, and tri-separations, dialogue and music tracks. On the outside of the containers it was written in big red letters, "For Destruction!" If he had arrived one day later, the negative would have been incinerated. The film would have disappeared forever. However, the negative was almost useless. It was scratched, torn, and badly faded. Another fan of the film in Sydney working at AtLab Deluxe spent two years of his own time using the newest digital techniques to save it. And, working frame by frame, he restored the film to a pristine condition. The print that was made from it was absolutely astonishing to me. And the Blu-ray that is being issued now was made from that print. The colors are just so accurate. I am amazed as much by the Blu-ray as I am by the print. But then, Cannes asked to see the print, and they declared the film a Cannes classic. They screened it again two years ago. Only two films...Pardon myself for the congratulations...But only two films have ever been screened twice at the Cannes Film Festival. It was then featured at the Sydney Film Festival, and of course, it was then released commercially in Australia thirty-eight years after its original release. This time, people flocked to it! Then, Drafthouse took it and opened it in New York to the most unbelievable reviews. The New York Times Sunday Edition gave a whole page to it. Everywhere it opened, it got incredible reviews. I must be one of the luckiest directors in the whole world to have a film that disappeared without a trace, and that was unsuccessful when it first opened, and here, forty years later, it has a brand new life.
I think the movie is resonating with today's audiences, because films like this don't get made anymore. It feels fresh and new forty years after the fact. Why do you think this type of genre has disappeared?
Ted Kotcheff: From my experience as a director in Hollywood now, if the title of the script doesn't have the word MAN in it, no one is interested. Iron Man. Spider-Man. Batman. Superman. These films today, a lot of them are comic strips. A film like Wake in Fright? It's difficult to get them financed. It's not impossible. But, the whole climate of filmmaking in the commercial world has changed considerably.
You didn't consider re-titling this Man in Fright?
Ted Kotcheff: (Laughs) That is funny!
Now, how does a filmmaker such as yourself go from making movies like Wake in Fright and First Blood to a comedy like Weekend at Bernie's? That seems like such a drastic 360...
Ted Kotcheff: That is a question that is frequently asked of me. I think about it, and my only reply is...First off, I started in live television. I would do a different drama every three weeks. We did drama, we did comedy, we did historical plays. We did every genre imaginable over the course of three years. I think I did over twenty one hour plays. First of all, not many people get to explore other sides of their abilities. Who is going to give you money these days? If you are doing big action films, no one is going to give you the money to do a comedy. But in my own case, I had the opportunity to do two or three comedies. I had a certain amount of interest in doing them. I had a knack for doing them, so I knew I could do a comedy. I had friends that came up to me...I though this was a wonderful, obscure idea. Robert Klane, who wrote it, says, "Ted, I have this image. I don't know what its about." I said, "What's the image." He says, "Two guys drag a dead body around pretending its alive." I said, "Wow, that is very strong. How did we get there?" He looks at me and says, "I don't know." What happens Afterwards? "I don't know." I said, "Let's discuss this and get on with it, because it sounds great." That's how it all came about. I'm attracted to subversive material. My heroes are Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, and Billy Wilder. I love Billy Wilder. I love those ironic, satirical comedies that he did. Social commentary. I was always attracted to that subject matter. I wouldn't say that Weekend at Bernie's is your typical Billy Wilder film. But I have done others. I did Fun with Dick and Jane, which is more of a Billy Wilder subject. I'll tell you a funny story. I met my hero, Billy Wilder. We were in Munich. I was making Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, and he was making Fedora. Someone introduced us in the lobby. I said to him, "Mr. Wilder, I think that you are one of the funniest..." And he goes, "I know, I know, I know..." Then he says, "I have to tell you, Mr. Kotcheff, I think your film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is...}" "I know, I know, I know..." Before I knew it, that is what I said. The two of us started to laugh, and then we had dinner together. I went through all the great Billy Wilder stories that I know. People tell me Billy Wilder stories all the time, and I think they are great. So I asked him if they were true. One of the great stories is that he goes into see Louis B. Mayer at MGM, and he says to him, "Louis, I want to make a film about Vaslav Nijinsky." Louis goes, "Who?" He goes, "You know, the Russian ballet dancer." He goes, "You want to make a film about a Russian ballet dancer?" He says, "Yeah, it's incredible. At the end of his life, he went crazy." "You want to make a film about a crazy Russian ballet dancer?" He says, "Yeah, he had these delusions that he was a horse." "You want to make a film about a crazy Russian ballet dancer that thinks he's a horse? Get out of my office!" So Billy Wilder goes to leave, and he crosses the door. He turns, and he says, "Louis? Boy, you are missing it. You are missing one of the great buffo endings of all time." "What's that, Billy?" "Nijinsky wins the Kentucky Derby." (Laughs) I said, "Please tell me you actually said that." He goes, "I'm afraid I did." (Laughs) I adore him. He is a lovely man, personally. And I really liked his films. They are so big, and so original. And they were socially relevant. They had a hard, satirical edge to them. Those were the things that I liked to do. You know what I mean?
Yeah. No doubt. In terms of your career, you have gravitated back to TV. What brought you back to the medium after such a long and illustrious film career?
Ted Kotcheff: Do you mean, "Why did I become the executive producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit?" It was mainly because a big epic film I was going to do fell through at the very last second. I was sitting, knowing that the picture had collapsed in February...If a picture collapses in February, that means you are unemployed for the rest of that year, because all of the money for filmmaking has been spent. So, I heard that Dick Wolf was looking for someone to run a new series. I said, "Oh, please. I am not interested in episodic television." They went, "Well, it is interesting." I said, "What is it about?" And they said, "Its about sexual crimes." I said, "Well, if I am going to do anything in television, I would like to do something I have never done before." No one had ever treated the subject of sexual crimes. I talked to Dick Wolf. He was very flattering to me. He said he thought I was a great film director. Dot, dot, dot...I sat down and said, "I am interested in the subject matter. It is different. And unusual. Its fresh." I only started out to do thirteen shows. Half way through thirteen shows, Dick Wolf and NBC came to me and said, "Will you do about 8 more, so that we have a full season of 24?" And I said, "Uh....Um...I guess so." I did 8 more. After that, they said, "The show has really been a big success for us. Would you do one more year for us?" I said, "Um...I guess so." Then, twelve years later...You know, when you have something that is so successful, it is very hard to part with it. Since you gave birth to it. And you took it through its suckling stages. And you took it through its toddling stages, and its adolescence, and its adulthood...It is very hard to say, "Ok, I am leaving it now." I hope that is an explanation for you...
You are almost up to three hundred episodes on that series...
Ted Kotcheff: Yeah, almost three hundred. After twelve years, what happened was...Christopher Meloni was burnt out. He wanted to go back and work in films. So, I had to recast him. My chief writer left. He went over to CBS for a very lucrative deal. That's where he still is. He was a great writer, and we really bonded. We worked so well together. He left. A lot of his writers went with him. So, I was in the position to reinvent the wheel. I talked to Dick Wolf. I said, "Listen, twelve and a half years. That is enough. Let this new writer you have coming in have a blank page so that he can maybe recreate the show, and bring something new to it. Breathe new life into it. Because I have nothing further to add to it. I think it might help." Dick Wolf has always been interested in the longevity of his shows. I told him that the show stood a better chance with a whole new slate of writers. So, I finished the last half of the season, after Chris left.
It's an amazing legacy you have with that show.
Ted Kotcheff: Yeah. It was a pretty good run.
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